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Researchers reviewed several hundred websites promoting herbal products. Over half of these sites contained claims to treat, prevent, diagnose, or cure specific diseases, and over half of those making these claims failed to indicate that their claims haven't been evaluated by the FDA.

These findings are important because many, maybe even most, people believe that dietary supplements, including many herbal products, are regulated and that therapeutic claims can't be published unless they're "true". This isn't the case.

These products aren't regulated. Manufacturers can make unsubstantiated claims about their effects. There's no guarantee that these preparations contain the stated amounts of the allegedly active ingredient or that they are free of contaminants.

Here is the abstract for this publication.

Internet Marketing of Herbal Products

Charles A. Morris, MD;  Jerry Avorn, MD
 
JAMA. 2003;290:1505-1509.

Context  Passage of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act in 1994 restricted the Food and Drug Administration's control over dietary supplements, leading to enormous growth in their promotion. The Internet is often used by consumers as a source of information on such therapies.

Objective  To assess the information presented and indications claimed on the Internet for the 8 best-selling herbal products.

Data Sources  We searched the Internet using the 5 most commonly used search engines. For each, we entered the names of the 8 most widely used herbal supplements (ginkgo biloba, St John's wort, echinacea, ginseng, garlic, saw palmetto, kava kava, and valerian root). We analyzed the health content of all Web sites listed on the first page of the search results.

Study Selection  We analyzed all accessible, English-language Web sites that pertained to oral herbal supplements. A total of 522 Web sites were identified; of these, 443 sites met inclusion criteria for the analysis.

Data Extraction  The nature of the Web site (retail or nonretail), whether it was a sponsored link, and all references, indications, claims, and disclaimers were recorded. Two reviewers independently categorized medical claims as disease or nondisease according to Food and Drug Administration criteria.

Data Synthesis  Among 443 Web sites, 338 (76%) were retail sites either selling product or directly linked to a vendor. A total of 273 (81%) of the 338 retail Web sites made 1 or more health claims; of these, 149 (55%) claimed to treat, prevent, diagnose, or cure specific diseases. More than half (153/292; 52%) of sites with a health claim omitted the standard federal disclaimer. Nonretail sites were more likely than retail sites to include literature references, although only 52 (12%) of the 443 Web sites provided referenced information without a link to a distributor or vendor.

Conclusions  Consumers may be misled by vendors' claims that herbal products can treat, prevent, diagnose, or cure specific diseases, despite regulations prohibiting such statements. Physicians should be aware of this widespread and easily accessible information. More effective regulation is required to put this class of therapeutics on the same evidence-based footing as other medicinal products.

 
  Author Affiliations: Division of Pharmacoepidemiology and Pharmacoeconomics, Department of Medicine, Brigham and Women's Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Mass.
[ September 16, 2003, 08:07 PM: Message edited by: Betsy Iole ]
 

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Thanks Betsy for the abstract. Along similar lines from PetPlace.com:
Dangers of Holistic Medication
 by: Dr. Amy Wolff
 
The past several years has seen the growing popularity of the \"holistic\"
health movement. That trend is growing in the world of veterinary care as
well. Many pet owners seek to complement or even replace traditional
medical therapy with holistic treatments.
 
Holistic medicine, including alternatives such as herbal/organic
supplements, aromatherapy, acupuncture, chiropractic and massage, are
believed to support the body's ability to heal itself. In some cases, the
implementation of these practices may improve your pet's condition.
However, the same caution must be taken when using these alternatives
as you would with conventional medicine. When used inappropriately,
serious illness can result.  
 
It is easy to be deceived by the words \"natural\" and \"organic.\" We believe
that if a product is natural then it must be safe to use. Remember that
some extremely dangerous substances are natural. Cyanide and arsenic
are natural compounds but they are certainly lethal. Care must be taken
to understand the nature of any medicine and its potential side effects.
 
Natural Diets and Vitamin Supplementation
 
Some pet owners formulate and cook their pet's diet at home – for a
number of reasons. Pets with special dietary needs are often prescribed
modified diets that may be unpalatable; home cooked meals may be
necessary. Commercial cat foods often contain flavorings, colors,
preservatives, protein or carbohydrate sources that are poorly tolerated in
some cats.
 
In addition, many people have ethical and moral objections to the
ingredients used in commercial foods. They want to eliminate the use of
animals as food sources, so they feed themselves and their pets
vegetarian diets.
 
A vegetarian diet for dogs, which are omnivores, is possible. On the other
hand, cats cannot thrive on a vegetarian diet. If you are considering
preparing your pet's food at home, ask your veterinarian for recipes that
give proper balance of nutrients and instructions for preparing and storing
it safely.
 
There is also the general feeling that a home cooked meal is just better.
Ingredients, preparation and freshness can be controlled when the diet is
made at home. But it takes careful research to balance a home cooked
meal with the necessary amounts of nutrients. There are many
components to producing a well-balanced diet for your pet with regard to
primary nutrients, vitamins and minerals. A common feeling is that if
vitamins and minerals are helpful in small amounts, then large amounts
must be better. Caution must be used here since overdoses of vitamins
can cause serious illness.  
 
An overdose of vitamin A can cause bone disease; large doses of vitamin
C can cause stomach upsets; imbalances of vitamin D, phosphorus and
calcium can lead to bone demineralization. If you include raw meats in
the diet, bacterial contamination becomes a concern. The same goes for
raw eggs. Raw eggs also contain a protein that interferes with the
absorption of B vitamins.
 
Herbal Supplements and Cures
 
Medicines from plants have been used for thousands of years to prevent
or cure a wide variety of ailments. Most drugs used in conventional
medicine were originally derived from plant sources. While most plants
used have beneficial properties, it is important to remember that the
strength of the plant's active ingredients will vary with the variety of herb
and the horticultural practices used to grow them.  
 
Herbs can be sprayed with pesticides, fungicides or fertilizers. They may
have been fertilized with improperly prepared compost, which can harbor
harmful bacteria. They may produce more than one active compound
causing unwanted side effects. They may worsen some medical
conditions. There are no standards for quality control in production and
dosages. Many have vomiting and diarrhea as a side effect. Onion, garlic,
pennyroyal, and ginseng are a few of the commonly used herbal
preparations that can cause toxicities if used inappropriately.  
 
Even if your pet is taking an herbal supplement without complication,
make sure your veterinarian knows what you are giving. Some herbs
interfere with other health concerns and other medications.
 
Acupuncture, Acupressure, Chiropractic and Massage
 
Used as additions to pain relief and management of chronic conditions,
acupuncture, acupressure and chiropractic can be extremely beneficial in
making your pet more comfortable. Massage can be very helpful in
helping rehabilitate injury and increasing range of motion. The biggest
concern for this growing area of veterinary medicine is making sure you
have qualified professionals who have completed recognized courses of
study in the treatment of animal diseases. None of these procedures
should be performed by novices.  
 
Before beginning any health care program, talk to your pet's veterinarian.
Many clinics are incorporating these strategies into your pet's total health
care picture. It is unwise to go to your local health store and buy a variety
of herbs and supplements to add to your pet's regimen without this
consultation. Any illness or sudden change in your pet's behavior should
have a medical check up before initiating any treatments, herbal or otherwise.
 
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